Opening 2 Apr 2009
The New York Times called him the “Oskar Schindler of China.” The Chinese refer to him as a “living Buddha,” honouring him for his humanitarian deeds during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The German businessman John Rabe, born in Hamburg in 1882, wrote a meticulous diary of his experiences, which had been confiscated by the Nazis and only came to light again 60 years later.
Florian Gallenberger, the German director-writer, concentrates on the last weeks of John Rabe’s stay in Nanking, the capital of China, in December 1937. After nearly 30 years as head of Siemen’s Chinese branch office, it is difficult for Rabe (Ulrich Tukur) to return to the office in Berlin. Whilst attending the farewell ball with his wife Dora (Dagmar Manzel), Nanking is bombed by Japanese airplanes. Panic breaks out, and Rabe resolutely opens the factory gates to shelter the families of his employees. A most startling idea strikes him: use the giant Nazi flag to deflect Japanese bombers away from the desperate civilians!
German Jew and diplomat Dr. Rosen (Daniel Brühl) brings news about a safety zone for civilians that was successfully set up in Shanghai. A handful of expatriates want to try for this option, and Valérie Duprès (Anne Consigny), the French director of the Girls’ College, suggests John Rabe as chairman, which outrages the American physician Dr. Wilson (Steve Buscemi). He detests the “Nazi” Rabe. The next morning, frightened refugees try to storm the last ship leaving the harbour – Rabe and his wife Dora fight their way through the mob. At the very last moment he decides to let Dora go to safety while he stays behind to organize the rescue operation with the expat committee.
The Imperial Japanese Army unleashes a wave of brutality on the civilian population, and hundreds of people seek refuge in the overcrowded safety zone. It becomes more and more difficult to get food and medical supplies. The Japanese keep harassing and attacking, seeking a pretence to storm the zone. For Rabe and his comrades a race against time begins.
Despite jamming a lot of information, incidents and characters into the 130 minutes, the film never loses its entertainment value, bringing in moments of comedy, danger, intrigue, horror and even a hint of romance. Ulrich Tukur plays his hero in a wonderfully calm and collected way, portraying a man who could not abandon his conscience. He is just doing the right thing, growing above himself under extreme circumstances. (Birgit Schrumpf)